Thursday, 9 July 2015

"A change is gonna come"

Metamorphosis.jpgThe lyric of the late, great Sam Cooke, which hit the charts 50 years ago, in 1965, seems a long way from the classic short story published 100 years ago, in 1915 by one of my top 5 authors, Franz Kafka: Die Verwandlung, or The Metamorphosis. It opens in as compelling a manner as George Orwell's 1984 or Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (if you haven't read them, now's as good a time as any, with summer holidays coming on). The first part begins with a frightening awakening, quite removed from the mood of the opening of Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, the first in his 7 part work collectively entitled "À la recherche du temps perdu". Kafka's story draws on a mythological tale (Ovid) based on a real biological phenomenon: metamorphosis.

"One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and it seemed ready to slide off at any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked."

"What on earth am I rambling on about?" (I can hear you gasp!). I am thinking about a recent documentary on BBC4 in which the film maker David Malone  beautifully contrasts the developmental biology of metamorphosis in caterpillars, tadpoles and sea urchins, with the "psychological metamorphosis" which he exemplifies through the plight of a soldier returning from war. If you want another recommendation it is the final part of Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong, which addresses this traumatic social phenomenon. 

We have chosen to make the darkling beetle, (RHS) Tenebrio molitor one of our model organisms at the UTC. You can drop into the cell growth room any time and see these stages of metamorphosis in this beetle. Think about the larvae, the pupae and the adult beetle. Then consider the fact that each "form"  is encoded by the same set of genes or genome. Two totally different creatures derived from the same genome. I challenge you all to not be fascinated by the task of explaining how such a complex outcome: two essentially distinct  creatures from one "blueprint".  This presents opportunities for Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths.

The summer for me will involve getting to grips with new software to decode the data obtained by our outgoing Grenland Biodesign team, in particular Jack , Rigsby, Sarah, Matthew and Will, who worked with Ashraf (one of my PhD students) who provided the genomic DNA samples for Dr. Chritiane Hertz-Fowler's team at the Genome Centre (University of Liverpool) to produce the raw genome data. What a great legacy for the UTC: our own model organism and an emerging genome that we can call our own. September 2015 will see a new cohort of students at Y10 and Y12, a real change is gonna come, but I know that those leaving this year will leave a long lasting legacy!

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